The mic was cut off before students Isabel Mace-McLatchie and Sarah Steele had a chance to finish speaking. The two Jefferson High School (JHS) seniors were delivering public comment at the December 11 meeting of the board of directors of Portland Public Schools (PPS), urging the board to delay a vote on a formalized agreement to pay the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) more than $1 million a year for full-time, armed police on campus.
The board passed the agreement later that evening.
The day before, Mace-McLatchie and Steele were told by PPS that they’d have six minutes—three each—to read through their statement. But at the meeting, they were told they’d only get four minutes to share their concerns.
“That was one of the most frustrating things for me,” Mace-McLatchie told the Mercury. “That moment kind of embodied the way PPS has prioritized and dealt with students.”
For the dozens of PPS students who have fought against expanding the district’s police force in recent months, frustration had become a too-familiar feeling. But the board’s casual dismissal of students’ concerns only further galvanized the student movement against the district paying for Portland cops to police school campuses.
“This past week has marked the end of a conversation for you,” Mace-McLatchie told the board before she and Steele were cut off, “while it marks only the beginning of a conversation for us.”
Two months later, the adults are paying attention.
On January 29, after a whirlwind student-led campaign to raise awareness of the potential risks that come with armed officers on campus—and the question of whether the district ought to be paying for them—the PPS board walked back their initial vote, agreeing to instead take more time to listen to community feedback.
Julia Brim-Edwards, the PPS board member who led the effort to overturn the original decision, said that continuing the debate would give the district more time to take into account “our students’ and staff’s perspectives.”
Mace-McLatchie and other students, who led online and in-person rallies before the second vote, see the board’s reversal as a success—and are prepared to continue the fight.
“We are happy that the decision got reversed so that there’s more time for us to voice our opinion,” said Amelia Ernst, a senior at Grant High School (GHS). “But we’re still waiting to build our trust back up with the board and see how they act in this process.”
“This past week has marked the end of a conversation for you, while it marks only the beginning of a conversation for us.”
PPS has used armed police on school campuses, called School Resource Officers (SROs), for decades. This new agreement, however, would be the first formal contract between PPS and PPB, and the first time PPS would use its own money to pay for those officers. It would also bump up the presence of SROs on campuses from three days a week to five. The agreement was initiated by PPB, which claimed it did not have the budget to provide SROs without compensation. According to Brim-Edwards and other board members, the City of Portland was pressuring the school board to approve the agreement before the end of 2018 so Portland City Council could swiftly ratify it.
Little information about the new agreement was relayed to PPS students. In fact, when Mace-McLatchie put together an informal online poll of PPS students 24 hours before the December vote, about 75 percent of the 384 respondents hadn’t heard anything about the SRO contract.
As a member of student leadership at GHS, Micah Mizushima was more aware of district news than most of his fellow students. He remembers hearing something about the agreement in October and attending a student leadership summit where it was discussed on December 1.
On the afternoon of December 6, PPS held a student-led discussion about SROs for high school students at the district office. But school was still in session at the time the meeting began, and many students—especially those whose schools are a long bus ride from the Lloyd Center district office—weren’t able to attend.
Mizushima managed to make the meeting. He was the only student of color in the room, a factor that intensified his growing concerns around campus police.
I've always felt that simply being around a police officer was threatening to me because I see police officers as unpredictable, and it scares me, Mizushima said in an email to the Mercury.
“I don’t want to be going through my school day with the worry that I might be unjustly targeted by a police officer.”
Sophia Lucas, a student of color at JHS, shares Mizushima’s worries. Lucas learned about the SRO agreement a week before the board vote when her principal organized a student meeting about it. Students packed into a classroom to learn about the agreement, filling every seat and standing around the edges of the room. An armed officer stood at the front of the room.
The students posed questions to a PPB representative in the room: Why did the officers have to be armed? Why were they necessary when Jefferson already has security guards? And why did PPS decide to fund cops over improving school facilities?
None of the questions were answered to Lucas’ satisfaction.
Lucas also attended the December 12 board meeting and called the vote “heartbreaking.” “The board had already made up their minds about it before the meeting,” she said.
The PPS board has argued that its SROs are integral to providing a safe school environment and that their focus is to de-escalate situations and work with school counselors to help students who have abusive or unsafe homes.
But Mizushima’s and Lucas’ fears about interacting with police officers as people of color are backed up by data. According to a recent ACLU study, the presence of officers on school campuses disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities. The study found that in 2013, Black students in the US were about twice as likely as their white peers to be arrested by an SRO.
Being arrested by an SRO gives a student a criminal record before they even finish high school, making it harder for them to find a job or a place to live—and if they’re arrested again, that previous record often leads to a harsher sentence. Criminal justice reform advocates call this dynamic the “school to prison pipeline.”
"Police officers in schools across the country—police officers in general—have a disproportionate impact on youth of color."
“What we know is that police officers in schools across the country—police officers in general—have a disproportionate impact on youth of color,” says Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Oregon. “So to sign on to a contract that formalizes and uses school district money for police officers to be in schools... is very troubling.”
Dozens of students attended that first meeting organized by JHS’ principal, but only a handful showed up to the subsequent meetings Lucas and her classmates facilitated in weeks after the vote. So Lucas, working with Mizushima and other PPS students, decided to ramp up the pressure.
“I felt like people had lost a little bit of momentum,” she said, “and we needed to get that back.”
After the December approval by the PPS board, the SRO contract headed to a Portland City Council vote, giving PPS students a second chance to stop the agreement. Grant and Jefferson high schoolers who had met at the December meeting decided to meet over winter break and come up with a plan, aided by Teressa Raiford, founder of police accountability group Don’t Shoot Portland.
By January 2, students were outside of Portland City Hall, waving posters, chanting, and speaking out against the SRO contract. The group also started a Twitter account, @NoSROsPDX, engaged in conversations about the contract online, and began circulating a petition to oppose the agreement. That petition has since gathered nearly 1,300 signatures.
The student group also got the attention of Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who was being sworn in the same day students rallied outside city hall. She later told reporters that she would have been there if she could.
“I [was] so proud, when I saw the pictures of the students protesting,” Hardesty told the Mercury. “There was a diversity of students, they were well organized, and they were very well-spoken about the impact of seeing police officers with weapons every day in their school.”
The contract never reached city council. At PPS’ January board meeting, members unanimously voted to rescind the SRO vote and reconsider their options. Board members decided to spend more time talking to students, parents, and faculty members about the SRO agreement before holding another vote on the contract at the end of February.
GHS senior Amelia Ernst said she was glad to see the PPS board rethink its agreement with PPB—but after PPS’ lack of good-faith engagement with students the first time around, she’s reluctant to trust things will be any different this time.
“I’m still a little wary of the board in general after the first time it passed, and the way that the board acted,” she said. “I think it’s a good victory for us, but we have to be cautious moving forward.”